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Sue Carruthers: Five elements of a good presentation

How many keynotes and other presentations can you remember? Why do they stand out? Was it a charismatic speaker? Did they tell a compelling story? Did you learn something important about the conservation of zoological specimens or the restoration of historic clocks?

Mastering good public speaking is a great way of promoting yourself, your particular expertise and conservation more broadly. Follow our five key steps and your will be on your way.

1. Who are your audience?

Research your audience while you are planning your presentation, asking questions to identify the two or three points that are most likely to interest them. Then you can focus your speech around these topics.  

Make sure you explain the benefits of what you are talking about to this audience specifically – not just general features.  You can even do this in your introduction. It’s the difference between “I restore medieval paintings which would otherwise be lost to the world” and “I am a conservationist.”

2. Your body language and dress

Eye contact makes the biggest difference between trusting someone and not, so aim to look each person in the eye in turn – don’t sweep vaguely round like a lighthouse. In a large audience you don’t need to look at everyone – just one person in each area of your audience. If you can make proper eye contact you will get signals back from your audience about how they are finding your presentation – and these are invaluable.

Stand or sit upright with an open posture – hands above your waist and tilted slightly upwards. Don’t fold your arms or make repetitive gestures as this distract from what you are saying.

Dress smartly but not in a way that will overwhelm your audience. To build trust yet show authority/professionalism, the best thing is to dress “one notch up” from your audience: if they are likely to be wearing jeans you can do the same but with a jacket and/or more accessories. Older people tend to expect more formal dress than younger people.

3. Your voice

When people have given a presentation many times or are very familiar with their subject, they can tend to get rather monotone – which makes them sound boring and uninterested in what they are saying.

Make your voice interesting by stressing key words or sentences and varying the volume, pace and pitch.

Slow your pace and use pauses to emphasise when you have made an important point, and to give your audience time to take in it and process it fully.

4. Visual aids

Powerpoint slides, handouts, video and flipcharts are all useful visual aids which can add interest to your talk.

The general rule of thumb for slides is that “less is more” and “one message per slide”. Use pictures, diagrams and infographics where you can and if you are using text, keep it concise.

Remember that people can’t read what’s on your slides and listen to you at the same time. Allow your audience time to read each slide and take it in before you start talking. Another approach is to animate your slides so you can reveal them gradually.

5. How you handle questions

It is more interesting and involving for your audience if they can ask questions as you go along. This also gives you a chance to gauge how much they are taking in. However, the danger is that you could lose track of what you are saying or going off at a tangent, so you need to be confident in your ability to bring the talk back on track.

It’s a matter of what you feel most comfortable with. For new presenters the questions at the end approach is often best.


And finally…… Relax, enjoy yourself and be yourself. No-one likes to be in the presence of someone who is tense.

Remember, a great presentation isn’t necessarily perfect; it’s more about being approachable and leaving them wanting to know more.


Learn how to overcome your nerves, pitch presentations so they meet your audience’s needs, how to structure your presentation to keep people engaged and how to use visual aids and handle tricky questions! Sign up for Presentation Skills for Conservators here!


The views expressed in these comments are the views of the individual and do not reflect the views of The Institute of Conservation. Any comments containing inappropriate language or copyright material will be removed.

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